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Handwritten signatures are still used to authenticate a document, even though the more serious operations are done in front of a notary (at least in France). This shows that a trusted third party is perceived as important because a handwritten signature is not enough to ensure authentication.

With this in mind, are there requirements for the complexity of a handwritten signature? Is a cross or a circle enough? If it is not - why?

I do not believe that "ability to forge" is a possible answer as it is completely subjective. Additionally, an individual cannot consistently replicate their signature.


Note 1: the answer will probably depend on the country, if so I am mostly interested in France (or the EU) and the US. A general answer would be great too.

Note 2: this problem is solved by an electronic signature (based on a certificate and a hash of the document) - however handwritten signatures still exist

2
  • In the US, a va;id electronic signature does not need to be "based on a certificate and a hash of the document" A simple ASCII name of the signer can be enough if intended as a signature. The E-sign act and the UETA specifically reject any need for any particular technological solution. See my answer. Jun 13, 2021 at 20:22
  • 1
    FWIW, in much of East Asia and Southeast Asia (at least in recent history), and historically, in much of West Eurasia, an engaged seal, rather than a signature, was the primary means by which official documents including contracts were assented to with legal meaning.
    – ohwilleke
    Jun 14, 2021 at 17:49

3 Answers 3

8

A Signature need not be a name, much less the signer's name

A signature can be any word or mark which represents a person, and which indicates that the signer has read and agreed to the document. It need not be the person's name, nor written using the standard "roman" alphabet used for the English Language. Nor is there any requirement that a signature be particularly complex or unique, or hard to forge. A simple "X" will do. Section 3-401(b) of the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) reads:

(b) A signature may be made (i) manually or by means of a device or machine, and (ii) by the use of any name, including a trade or assumed name, or by a word, mark, or symbol executed or adopted by a person with present intention to authenticate a writing.

The key element is the "present intention to authenticate a writing".

Upcounsel's page on "Legally Binding Signature confirms this, reading:

A legally binding signature makes an agreement official once all parties have placed their signatures on a contract. Signatures are the most common method of indicating that you have read over and agreed to the terms, even if a person’s signature is so stylized and unique that’s illegible. Further, as agreements move into digital form, the basis on what qualifies as an official signature has been broadened substantially.

...

All one would need is a mark that represents who that person is. It can be in the following forms:

  1. Squiggles
  2. Picture
  3. “X”

As long as the signature represents who that person is and his or her intent, any of the marks are considered valid and legally binding. Signatures are usually recorded in pen, but this is not always the case. ...

A signature may be issued by anything that marks on paper. The pencil is not the ideal choice because it can erase or be smudged, but signatures made in pencil are just as valid as signatures based in pen. Signatures can be issued in digital form or via stamps because there are various forms of writing implementations.

The Free Dictionary's legal dictionary section defines "Signature" as:

A mark or sign made by an individual on an instrument or document to signify knowledge, approval, acceptance, or obligation.

The term signature is generally understood to mean the signing of a written document with one's own hand. However, it is not critical that a signature actually be written by hand for it to be legally valid. It may, for example, be typewritten, engraved, or stamped. The purpose of a signature is to authenticate a writing, or provide notice of its source, and to bind the individual signing the writing by the provisions contained in the document.

Spencer Knight's page "Does a Signature Need to Be in Cursive?" says:

... with a wet signature (i.e. a signature that is written rather than electronically typed), a person could potentially use their printed (non-cursive) name or even a symbol like a happy face as a valid signature. The purpose is to leave an identifying mark on a document that confirms the identity of the signer and demonstrates their intent to consent to the contents of the document

However, the page goes on to say that a standard cursive version of the person's name may be less likely to cause problems and be more easily accepted.

In the case of a notarized signature, the notary's certificate testifies that the notary personally observed the signer signing, and that the notary either checked valid ID, or by some other means is convinced that the person is who the document claims s/he is.

Electronic Signatures

15 U.S. Code § 7006 provides that:

The term “electronic signature” means an electronic sound, symbol, or process, attached to or logically associated with a contract or other record and executed or adopted by a person with the intent to sign the record.

15 U.S. Code § 7001 provides that:

(a) In general
Notwithstanding any statute, regulation, or other rule of law (other than this subchapter and subchapter II), with respect to any transaction in or affecting interstate or foreign commerce—
(1) a signature, contract, or other record relating to such transaction may not be denied legal effect, validity, or enforceability solely because it is in electronic form; and
(2) a contract relating to such transaction may not be denied legal effect, validity, or enforceability solely because an electronic signature or electronic record was used in its formation.

15 U.S. Code § 7002 allows state laws different from § 7001 only if such laws implement the Uniform Electronic Transactions Act (UETA) or if such a law:

(2) (A) specifies the alternative procedures or requirements for the use or acceptance (or both) of electronic records or electronic signatures to establish the legal effect, validity, or enforceability of contracts or other records, if—
(2) (A) (i) such alternative procedures or requirements are consistent with this subchapter and subchapter II; and
(2) (A) (ii) such alternative procedures or requirements do not require, or accord greater legal status or effect to, the implementation or application of a specific technology or technical specification for performing the functions of creating, storing, generating, receiving, communicating, or authenticating electronic records or electronic signatures;

15 U.S. Code § 7003 lists various specific exceptions to § 7001 Including:

  • wills, codicils, or testamentary trusts;
  • adoption, divorce, or other matters of family law
  • court orders or notices, or official court documents
  • the cancellation or termination of utility services default, acceleration, repossession, foreclosure, or eviction, or the right to cure for a residential mortgage or lease
  • the cancellation or termination of health insurance or benefits or life insurance benefits
  • recall of a product, or material failure of a product, that risks endangering health or safety

The UETA (section 2 subsection (8) provides that:

(8) “Electronic signature” means an electronic sound, symbol, or process attached to or logically associated with a record and executed or adopted by a person with the intent to sign the record.

(official comment) The idea of a signature is broad and not specifically defined. Whether any particular record is “signed” is a question of fact. Proof of that fact must be made under other applicable law. This Act simply assures that the signature may be accomplished through electronic means. No specific technology need be used in order to create a valid signature. One’s voice on an answering machine may suffice if the requisite intention is present. Similarly, including one’s name as part of an electronic mail communication also may suffice, as may the firm name on a facsimile. It also may be shown that the requisite intent was not present and accordingly the symbol, sound or process did not amount to a signature. One may use a digital signature with the requisite intention, or one may use the private key solely as an access device with no intention to sign, or otherwise accomplish a legally binding act. In any case the critical element is the intention to execute or adopt the sound or symbol or process for the purpose of signing the related record.

The definition requires that the signer execute or adopt the sound, symbol, or process with the intent to sign the record. The act of applying a sound, symbol or process to an electronic record could have differing meanings and effects. The consequence of the act and the effect of the act as a signature are determined under other applicable law. However, the essential attribute of a signature involves applying a sound, symbol or process with an intent to do a legally significant act. It is that intention that is understood in the law as a part of the word “sign”, without the need for a definition. This Act establishes, to the greatest extent possible, the equivalency of electronic signatures and manual signatures. Therefore the term “signature” has been used to connote and convey that equivalency. The purpose is to overcome unwarranted biases against electronic methods of signing and authenticating records. The term “authentication,” used in other laws, often has a narrower meaning and purpose than an electronic signature as used in this Act. However, an authentication under any of those other laws constitutes an electronic signature under this Act.

The precise effect of an electronic signature will be determined based on the surrounding circumstances under Section 9(b).

This definition includes as an electronic signature the standard webpage click through process. ...

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  • Interesting. This may be a better topic for meta, but I wouldn't rely on upcounsel, findlaw, or any other service, which seems to derive its income from recommending lawyers, for legal information. Both up upconsel and findlaw make broad claims with little to support them. And they "hand wave" their explanations enough that it would seem that their main purpose is to get people to employ one of the attorneys they recommend. While their claims may in fact be well-researched, their lack of references makes them not suitable for educational purposes.
    – grovkin
    Jun 14, 2021 at 0:06
  • BTW, UCC is not an actual law, but rather a blueprint for laws which were adopted across the US. Anecdotally, I have tried to cash a check written to "bearer" once (a practice which UCC endorses) and most of the bank workers had no idea how to even handle the situation. They were not even trained to know or understand what a check written to "bearer" meant.
    – grovkin
    Jun 14, 2021 at 0:11
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    @grovkin You are correct that the UCC is a template, but almost all US states have enacted it with little or no variation. The UCC is standard enough that Federal laws, including the Esign act, refer to UCC sections , assuming that they will be valid in every state.Your anecdote says more about the training of the workers at the bank where you tried this. I suspect that if you were to post the state and year I could verify that that state had enacted as law the sections of the UCC dealing with bearer checks. BTW, just explain to a teller that "bearer" is the same as a check to "cash". Jun 14, 2021 at 0:42
  • it was in NJ around 2012 (+/- 2 years). And I got as far as the regional (not branch, regional!) bank manager without finding anyone who knew what a check written to "bearer" meant. I did it as an experiment to see if my reading of UCC was correct. It was after I had just read the relevant section of the UCC. I did quite a bit of explaining. I don't remember exactly what I said, but all the bank employees were treating it as a complete novelty.
    – grovkin
    Jun 14, 2021 at 0:47
  • As another "btw", the free legal dictionary link you posted has the following "citation": "signature the name of a person written by himself, either in full or by the initials of the forename with the surname in full.Collins Dictionary of Law © W.J. Stewart, 2006" All the discussions of using a symbol or a mark, in lieu of a name, appear to be in the context of some existing exigent circumstances (illiteracy, illness, etc.).
    – grovkin
    Jun 14, 2021 at 0:54
8

No for the U.S.

There is no criteria for graphic complexity in the United States. A signature can still be the historical "X". If it is some representation of your name, as it ordinarily is, it not need to be remotely legible or a representation of your full name.

From FindLaw

Usually, a signature is simply someone's name written in a stylized fashion. However, that is not really necessary. All that needs to be there is some mark that represents you. It can be -- as many signatures end up -- a series of squiggles, a picture, or historically, even the traditional "X" for people who couldn't read and write. As long as it adequately records the intent of the parties involved in a contractual agreement, it's considered a valid signature.

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  • I think you, and some of the others, maybe misinterpreting the actual intent of the question. In some cultures one's "signature" is not even expected to be based on one's name. It just has to be a stylized well-recognizable hand-written logo. As a primitive example, it can be a few letters with a star drawn on top of them. If I am reading the question correctly, they are asking how sophisticated such a logo has to be in the countries which they are asking about.
    – grovkin
    Jun 12, 2021 at 22:13
  • 1
    That's how I read the question also. There is no such criteria for graphic complexity nor criteria for the words or letters it my be representing. I'll edit to make that clearer. Jun 13, 2021 at 4:20
  • 1
    I fully agree with this answer, although my answer cites additional sources and details. Jun 13, 2021 at 20:17
  • @David Siegel I fully agree with David's comment. I suggest up voting it, as I did. Jun 13, 2021 at 21:54
-3

In the US, your "signature" is presumed to be your full name written in your own handwriting (in cursive). It may be OK for it to be written in a language other than English, but expect it to raise eyebrows if it is.

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  • 6
    @grovkin Can you cite a source, please? I think that while it is usual to write one's full name as a signature, almost any consistently used mark or word can serve as one legally. Thus I think your answer is misleading if not incorrect. I have not downvoted but may do so after research Jun 12, 2021 at 14:12
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    DV becasue it is not correct. Jun 12, 2021 at 20:32
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    @DavidSiegel plain English is not enough? It is common to ask for one's signature by asking to "sign your name." If you want, you can see the frequency with which the phrase "sign your name" appears in books vs other forms of requests for a signature. books.google.com/ngrams may be helpful in such search.
    – grovkin
    Jun 12, 2021 at 22:08
  • 4
    No plain English is not enough ween the law specifies otherwise, as I believe it does in this case. Source that are not laws, case law, nor legal writings are not really relevant here, so neither is ngrams. Jun 12, 2021 at 22:22
  • 3
    @grovkin -1 See my answer for relevant US laws and other legal sources which make it clear that a signature need not include a name, and if it does it need not be the signer's name. Here Intent is the key issue. Jun 13, 2021 at 20:15

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